For 81 years, the Oscar, awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been the pinnacle of cinematic achievement. The awards have been presented to men and women in a host of categories — acting, costume design, makeup, editing and the big one, directing. Actually, scratch that last category. Since the very first Academy Awards in 1929, no woman has ever been honored as the best director of the year.

Women have flown under the radar in the world of directorial fame for decades. But with next month’s Academy Awards, one woman just might deliver the killing blow to that longstanding anonymity. For her outstanding work on “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow has been nominated for the Academy’s 82nd award for Best Director. In an extra juicy twist, the man who stands most directly between Bigelow and history is her own ex-husband, box-office annihilator James Cameron, whose sci-fi epic “Avatar” grossed a billion dollars in 17 days and became the highest-grossing film of all time after only 40 days.

There’s no question that “Avatar” is a work of scientific genius. Cameron’s technical achievement is unparalleled; after all, he personally invented the camera system that shot the film. But he was also able to create his universe entirely within a series of high-powered computers and on a soundstage somewhere in California. And don’t forget the half-billion-dollar budget at his disposal.

Meanwhile, Bigelow brought her vision to life three miles from the Iraqi border, where her cast and crew occasionally had to deal with rocks and bullets whizzing about their heads. She often rolled four cameras simultaneously during 12-hour shoots under the unbearably hot sun, resulting in over 200 hours of footage. And she only had $11 million to bring it all together.

Those aren’t the only odds against Bigelow. Since 1936, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Director has been chosen from a field of five nominees. That’s 370 nominations over the past 74 years and dozens more in the nine preceding years of variable nominations. Only four of those nominees have been women.

After Linda Wertmüller’s breakthrough nomination in 1976 for “Seven Beauties,” only Jane Campion (“The Piano”) and Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) have come as close to the Oscar for Best Director. Both Campion and Coppola left their respective ceremonies with the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

As of today, those three women stand as the benchmarks for female directors. They made it to the final round. Though they didn’t get to the podium, they shared with their male counterparts the hallowed awkward split-screen anxiety that comes just before the tearing of the envelope and the forced conciliatory applause required of defeated nominees. Some of their efforts, like Campion’s and Coppola’s writing, were (according to the Academy) even better than the men’s. But the 78 other years have been entirely male-dominated.

It must be noted that there are more male directors than there are female. According to the Associated Press, of the just over 13,000 members of the Directors Guild of America in 2007, only seven percent were women. And in the 1930s, this number was probably even lower. But compared to the meager one percentage of nominations female directors have garnered, there must be some other explanation.

Maybe studios just don’t trust women to make the kind of movies upon which the awards circuit smiles. Director. It’s a masculine word. It’s a man’s job. The director is a manly man who solves all the problems and puts all the pieces together. He gives orders. Sometimes he yells at people. No wonder female directors can only make gentle, unassuming films.

Or so those with closed minds (which could include the big movie execs) might think. In reality, women have matched and surpassed male directors in the emotional, the violent, the sexual, the grotesque and the poignant alike. Even sophomoric comedies like Penny Marshall’s “Big” and Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” long cherished by pimply teenage boys, have made their way onto the screen thanks to their female directors.

In the past decade, perhaps no film has held such a hyper-masculine allure as “American Psycho.” You’ve no doubt seen a broseph’s Facebook status or two pulled directly from its cheerfully insane dialogue. The film’s commentary on modern materialism via the sick machinations of a yuppie serial killer has found a lasting appeal in an overwhelmingly male audience in its second life on DVD after a modest run at the box office.

That audience might be surprised to learn that the film, written off in 1999 as “un-filmable” by Hollywood insiders, was adapted to the screen and directed by Mary Herron. Through her screenplay and direction, Herron launched the career of star Christian Bale and created one of the most identifiably male films of the early 21st century.

Herron going unrewarded for her efforts probably wasn’t in itself a marked injustice; the film was highly divisive in its initial critical reception for the supposed nihilism of its extreme violence and sexuality, and it retains its detractors today. Three years later, however, another gruesome film was widely lauded upon its release.

“Monster,” starring Charlize Theron, told the story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who murdered seven men during the late 1980s and early 1990s. For her de-beautified performance as Wuornos, Theron swept the awards circuit, winning the Best Actress award from the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes and even the mighty Academy. But the woman who made her performance possible, writer and director Patty Jenkins, went unnoticed.

On Jan. 30, Bigelow’s peers named her the best director of the year at the Directors Guild of America Awards. In the 61-year history of the DGAs, only six winners have not been similarly honored at the Oscars. Less than a month later, “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar” went head-to-head in eight categories at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards. “The Hurt Locker” won six, including Best Picture and Best Director. If Bigelow wins the Oscar, it won’t just be another statue in her growing collection. It will be a landmark victory for all the filmmaking women of the world.

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